Jenny Molberg’s debut collection of poetry, Marvels of theInvisible, won the 2014 Berkshire Prize (Tupelo Press, 2017). Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, The Missouri Review, Copper Nickel, Boulevard, Poetry International, Best New Poets, and other publications. She is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Central Missouri and Co-editor of Pleiades.
I want to see, somewhere,
the hot, cocooned unfolding
of metamorphosis. The caterpillars
are flown in from El Salvador,
or New Guinea, and inside
the dewed glass, shadows
of men in white coats cloak
the tic of emergent wings—
What of the future do you hold
inside yourself? See: if you take a scalpel
and puncture the chrysalis,
it will explode—yellow goo
of cells, burst cells, amino acids,
proteins, here a bit of gut,
here a bit of brain.
A thing builds a shell around itself,
dissolves, becomes another thing.
The way, when you are wrecked
with love, you take only what you need,
you, liquid version of yourself,
all heart cells and skin cells—
here a trough of heart,
here, gutter of liver, channel
of hearing or touch. What remains,
as with the caterpillar, is memory.
See, we melt entirely.
I have been a child, a lake, a glacier,
glacial pool, woman, river of woman,
another woman, an older one.
The oldest scientist asks, If we are all
creatures of transformation,
if we are never quite the same,
what are we
when we arrive at the moment of death?
It is easier to think in death
that I am me, but dying. See: 1668.
The Dutch naturalist Jan Swammerdam
dissects a caterpillar for Cosimo de Medici.
And though we now think
turns to soup, to river, to ash
and what’s passed is past, he unfolds
the white sides of the insect and reveals
two wing-buds, tucked
tight inside the skin.
Now, as I watch the knife
pierce the chrysalis,
a river of cells swelling through
and out, I remember
what my father once said,
that what you see is only a fraction
of what you can believe,
and against the edge of the chrysalis,
embryonic half-wings twitch
without a body, waiting
for their slow decay, and then
for the next body
that opens itself
to the risk of flight.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
This poem was composed in 2013. I was writing a collection of poems that responded to scientific texts and letters from the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. The anecdote about Cosimo de Medici visiting Jan Swammerdam’s curiosity cabinet is taken from Renaissance and Revolution: Humanists, Scholars, Craftsmen and Natural Philosophers in Early Modern Europe, edited by J.V. Field and Frank A.J.L. James. I also discovered a webcam from the Florida Museum of Natural History, where you could follow rain-forest butterflies during their process of metamorphosis.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
This was not a poem that fell from the sky; I am sure I drafted the poem at least twenty times. I wrote the first draft in 2013 and the final draft sometime before it was first published in 2015.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I absolutely believe in inspiration. Actually, sometimes I have to learn to tame my inspiration urge, so as not to constantly write poems on subjects that are inherently “poetic.” I believe it is important to write to my cultural moment and my own personal experience, and I like to put pressure on myself to invent. One thing I love about the scientific texts I explore is their language. Centuries-old science that now may seem outdated to us was filled with moments of shock and wonder for scientists then. I love to mine these texts for diction that I may not have otherwise used, so I would say that I did “receive” the gift of their language and astonishment. I do feel I have “received” poems from the poetry gods before, but this is not one of them. Yes—sweat and tears galore, with this poem and so many others. But I live for that outpouring.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
Often, I’ll give myself rules for a poem that refuses to be contained. With this one, I didn’t though—pardon the awful pun—I just let it fly.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
Perhaps this is unusual: the lines in the poem that use a first-person pronoun came from dreams, the kind of dreams that are so powerful that they change the way you see yourself. As I was doing this research and watching the butterflies slowly emerging from their cocoons, I was dreaming of being a woman who had lived forever, who kept melting into different bodies of water and growing back into another woman again. This reminded me of something my father, who is a pathologist, said, that “what you see is only a fraction of what you can believe.” I am so struck by that word “can,” because it extends the ability of the imagination much further than the senses or any scientific fact. I think that poets and scientists share this quality, to be able to imagine possibilities so beyond logical proof that they allow for discovery.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
The poem appeared in a feature at The Missouri Review in 2015, so about two years.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
This is probably a fault of mine—I often get excited about new work and send it out too early when left to my own devices. I seek out workshops with friends to try to prevent this. I’d love to have the patience many poets have, to let the poems marinate awhile—with some I do, with others, I get impatient. It’s my hope that I have good judgement about this, but who knows.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
“Fact” is an interesting word in the context of this poem, because facts often change. In many ways, this is what the poem is about—there was the belief that the caterpillar turned completely to goo in the chrysalis, then Swammerdam showed us that this is not entirely true, as the tracheal tubes stay put and these things called “imaginal discs” are there inside the caterpillar, waiting to become parts like wings and eyes and antennae. This idea, I think, could be applied to human experience: the “fact” of me as a person can evolve. In terms of fiction: I think some people get tripped up on adhering to the literal, factual truth in poems, and one of the greatest lessons I learned from my teachers was that I could tell little lies to get to truer versions of the truth. My students think it’s hilarious when I tell them to lie, but I mean it! In a way, metaphors are lies, because (to take an example from the poem) I am obviously not a river. But the truer version of the truth is that I am.
Is this a narrative poem?
Can I be a pest and say yes and no? I think many of my poems have a narrative arc, but that may not make them necessarily “narrative poems.” Moments of lyricism seem important, too—asides and questions and wordplay and music-making are the most fun part of poems. Most of my favorite poems straddle this line.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
Absolutely! Charlotte Smith and John Donne were a couple of my fascinations during the time I wrote this poem, but also Brigit Pegeen Kelly (always), Bruce Bond, B.H. Fairchild, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Carl Phillips, and Aracelis Girmay were teaching me about poetry through their words. They all still teach me, and many more.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Honestly, no, not while I write my first drafts. As I start to think about final drafts and publishing, though, I’d say that Kathryn Nuernberger is my ideal reader. She’s the Moore to my Bishop, as we like to joke. If I can make her laugh or cry (preferably both), I think I’ve done my job.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
Yes, I often share my work with my dear friend and amazing poet Caitlin Pryor, as well as my always-teacher and good friend David Keplinger. I’ve recently started sharing poems with the poet Caridad Moro-Gronlier, whose work I admire. Bruce Bond and a handful of North Texas-affiliated poets have an annual poetry thread, where we write poems in a dialogue for about a month, and that is always fascinating and productive.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
Ha! I’m not sure that it does—I think you picked a pretty emblematic one.
What is American about this poem?
What an interesting question. Perhaps the speaker of the poem is what is most American about the poem, as she watches the metamorphosis through a webcam in Florida, instead of doing first-hand research. Seems pretty lazy to me, speaker. Is that American? Probably.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
I’d say the poem was finished, or at least I think it is.